Daniel Kane interviews the poet Wang Ping | March 19,1999
DK: Was your poem "Syntax" an attempt at validating "incorrect" usage of the English language, usage that somehow positively alters the way we speak?
WP: Yes. This poem came out of a conversation I had with a poet named Leonard Schwartz. I was talking to him and I made a grammatical mistake. He was correcting me and I said "What difference does it make?" I suddenly realized I could write a poem out of that. I wanted to explore the relationship between language and nature, language and the body, language and culture.
DK: In the first couplet, would the line "She walk to table" be a literal translation of what a Chinese person would say?
WP: Yes. In Chinese we have almost no grammar. We don't have third person singular - you don't need to put an s after a verb. We don't really have past tense, or verb changes according to the rule of tenses. Occasionally we add one word to indicate the past. Mostly, though, the way we indicate time depends on a context that we're in.
DK: If that's the case, what's the tension here between the correct grammar line and the literal translation line?
WP: Well, I'm not so sure about this specific case, but I know that I have to think about English in an entirely different way than I think about Chinese. I don't think about Chinese - its roots, where it came from - because it's my mother tongue. When I write in English, though, I have to think about the root of the word - I have to go to the root a lot of times. I have to check things all the time - in this way I find a lot of things that a native speaker might not notice. I like this, because I like the feeling of getting at the roots of language, the origins of language.
DK: What do you think the relationship of your line "No sentence really complete thought" is to your own poetics?
WP: That line is a direct influence from Ezra Pound. Ernest Fenollosa's book The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry, which has an introduction by Ezra Pound, was very important for me. This taught me that the Chinese language is a kind of natural bridge between language and poetry. That book really started me thinking about the basic elements of language - how we should go back to the roots and come out with a fresh angle. Also, it made me think about how grammar and language without syntax affect the way we see things. Chinese bears an internal logic even though there's hardly any grammar - I believe it's close to nature, to cycles of movement. A sentence is very forced, in a way, especially the way it ends with a period. The natural way of how things move tends to be more continuous than a grammatically correct line allows for, which is how I tend to write. I encourage my students to rethink how the human mind works, especially in terms of language. After all, the way we think is not limited to grammatically correct ways of speaking and writing. Instead, we think more continuously. When my students "get" this, it frees them up to write in more experimental, fragmentary, and natural ways. Lots of fragments, juxtapositions.
DK: What advice would you give a student who is a speaker of English as a second language if that student is, like you were, determined to write English-language poetry?
WP: Try to take advantage of your purported shortcomings. Treat each word as if it was a toy. Imagine that you're in a huge playground of language, and have fun with the words. At the same time, introduce your own culture into the poem, bring in your mother-tongue language into it. Do a lot of literal translations, even transcriptions with the sound of a foreign word in your poem.
DK: How would you say you've incorporated your Chinese culture into your poetry?
WP: I spell out Chinese words phonetically when I want to go into old Chinese sayings and proverbs. These things are so coated with years and years of wisdom and cultural dust. I try to go in and bring out what was originally there. I also look at Chinese language and culture via the English language - it's fun to do that.